Airport Lights

As research turns to writing and the history of our airport begins to take form, I am reminded of my promise to keep my readers informed with bits and pieces of what is to come. Today I would like to share some thoughts about airport lighting.

            To me, there is nothing quite so beautiful as the sea of lights spread out across today’s commercial airport after dark. Years ago, as an airline agent, I sometimes drove a service vehicle to the edge of the ramp awaiting the arrival of a nighttime flight. With the ramp lights behind me, I could absorb the colors and patterns in semi-darkness and the cool night air.

            Flying into Rochester after dark from some far-away place offers the passenger an interesting pattern of colored lights that say, “Welcome home”. While unseen electronic beams and a voice heard through a pilot’s headset are the official guideposts for an inbound plane, from many miles away a beam of light flashing on the horizon pin-points the airport. First green, then white, then again green, it spreads across 360⁰ of the compass. This beam, the alternating green and white, signals a commercial airport and soon the end of a long trip.

            Now closer, a pattern of lights below defines the Rochester airport as the pilot circles to enter final approach. The white lights of the runway, placed at 200-foot intervals along each edge show the path from the green lights at the approach end to the red lights that signal the end of the pavement. An extra pattern of lights imbedded in the pavement suggest the proper landing zone. Blue lights that edge taxiways, often parallel to the runway, identify the route on the ground back to the terminal. At critical points, orange panels with letters and arrows that look like scrabble pieces direct the pilot along the way.

            Sometimes one must hold short of an active runway. Off in the distance another flight is landing. They close in as the airplane descends from the sky, then whiz past in a blur of passenger cabin lights. Cleared to continue by Air Traffic Control, you begin moving again toward the bright downward beam of ramp lights that surround the terminal and allow a mix of airplanes and service vehicles to move safely about. The airplane rolls toward the arrival gate and a ramp agent waves two orange wands crisscrossing them like an “x” at the stopping point. It is time to gather belongings for entry to the passenger terminal.

            The myriad of various colored lights was not always that sophisticated. In the beginning, a pilot hurried home in the late afternoon to avoid landing in a sea of darkness. In the 1930’s only a few lights originally defined the edge of airport property. Soon, commercial airports were required to invest in white lights on the edge of the runway, then the green and red lamps at runway’s beginning and end. Taxiways remained darkened well into the 1930’s and the pilot better be familiar with the route to his hangar.

            The sea of red, green, white and blue that defines an airport’s system of lights at night is installed and maintained to bring you or an arriving loved one safely home. It is also a sight to behold.

Work on writing the history of our airport, soon to celebrate 100 years, is progressing. I welcome your thoughts, your stories and your suggestions.                                               

                                                                                                Rick Iekel

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